TCS Daily

Tennis With Milton

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - November 17, 2006 12:00 AM

It was in the long ago, when I was an editor for The Reader's Digest that I chanced to be a panelist for some conference at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, Calif. I can't for the life of me remember what it was all about, but I do remember that one of the participants was Milton Friedman.

I had met him several times before that - encounters which never lessened my awe of him. You never doubted you were in the presence of a super-caliber mind, yet you never felt the slightest bit ill at ease. There was a crisp click to his voice, a kind of precision to even his incidental speech, but it was ever mated with a charming natural courtesy and a sparkling warmth in his eyes.

One afternoon, as we were drawing to the close of a rather boring session, I suggested that we go hit some tennis balls. He thought it was a great idea and so we found our way to some courts on the school campus.

I was 29 years younger than the great economist. I played a lot of tennis then, and was in pretty good shape. Milton Friedman didn't look frail, but he didn't look particularly athletic either. I sized up his spindly legs, his glasses. Even in tennis whites he really looked the whole egghead thing. But I noticed that his racket looked ominously well used.

His wife Rose came along and sat on a bench near the net. If I remember correctly she had a book with her. We volleyed for a while. He hit pretty well. Nice flat shots. We moved very little from side to side. Thock...thock. We traded forehands rhythmically, enjoying the warm afternoon sun.

We hit for about 15 minutes. "Wanna' do a set?" I asked. "Sure," he said. He wiped his forehead and touched up his glasses with a little towel and draped it back over the net cable. We volleyed for serve. He won with a weak shot that barely made it over the net and caught me off guard.

His serve was strong but pretty predictable. At first I thought, well, I'll go easy on him, not make him race around, panting in front of his wife. He was in his 60s then.

But it was soon obvious that he had no trouble returning my shots. I started slamming them harder. He returned confidently. His backhand wasn't bad.

I began to notice that although his face was relaxed, even smiling at times, the eyes behind his glasses were very concentrated. He looked like a man enjoying himself as he moved about in the sunlight, but his eyes seemed almost apart from him and focused on nothing but the ball.

I realized that I was sweating a little more than usual, and moving a lot more than usual back and forth across the court to reach his shots. The first game was long and he won it. The second game I served fast and hard. My serve was really in the groove. Most of the first serves were in. He was a little surprised, but there were hard fought volleys before I won the game.

He won the next game and the next one, as well, against my hard and accurate serves. I was down three to one and he was definitely making me play his game. He seemed to be making little effort but he had me running constantly.

It dawned on me that the "weak" shot with which he had won the initial serve had been completely calculated. Now he was dropping impudent little spins masterfully over the net as I rushed futilely to get them. He had chances to rip forehands past me, but instead he directed the ball to some unexpected point in my court, making me scramble to get my racket on it.

I had the distinct impression each time we volleyed that he had his next three shots already planned out and it seemed I could do nothing to change his plan.

I quickly changed from wondering how not to make an aging icon look bad to struggling on my own part to look a little bit good. It was great fun, a really good match, which ended with him winning.

"Quite a spin you have there," I said as casually as possible as we walked away from the courts. He allowed as how he had "worked on it" over the years. He said he enjoyed tennis and found it relaxing because it was a game you couldn't play while your mind was on something else.

That night, as I lay in bed, I thought back to how adroitly this spindly-legged "egghead" had controlled that tennis match. He had carefully gauged my strengths and weaknesses, yes, but that was only part of it. He was completely at peace with his own strengths and weaknesses and he had a seamless confidence born of being so honest about himself.

And withal, not a hint of swagger or superiority.

Many times in the ensuing years, when I saw Milton Friedman in discussion or debate, or had the rare occasion to converse with him, I thought of the qualities he had displayed in that tennis match. I always marveled at the precision of his thinking, the seriousness (not solemnity) with which he regarded those he engaged, and the absolute intellectual honesty with which he defended and advocated the overarching principle of his life - individual liberty.



Intellectual honesty - yes!
Thanks for such a fine story, with such a refreshing lesson.

At peace with his own strengths and weaknesses -- what a nice balance to strive for and achieve.

I'm really glad he lived so well, and so long.

Mr. Friedman is a true American hero and a gift to the world.
I am very sad to learn of his passing but comforted that his ideas will live on.

Things should be as simple as possible but no simpler

RIP Uncle Miltie

Hear, hear!
He was one of the greats.

Friedman's tennis game
Back in the late 60's, a friend of a college classmate invited me to lunch with her parents, an elegant elderly couple living in Alexandria's Old Town, both southerners redolent of gentility and Old Money.

At some point the daughter pointed out a window to a clay court behind their townhouse, and commented that there she had once played a a few games against Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, then in his 80's.

The story was virtually identical to Bennett's encounter with Friedman: spindly legs, an apparent lack of strength and agility --- yet her "elderly" opponent had an uncanny ability to place the ball exactly where she wasn't. Long before he broke a sweat, she was wiping her brow and wondering just what, exactly, had happened to her.

Moral: don't be fooled into thinking that old Smart Guys won't find a way to beat Callow Youth. It's the Way of the World.

old age & treachery overcome youth & skill.

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